When most people think of burlesque dancing, visions of voluptuous, scantily-clad women bumping and grinding their way through a bawdy, sexy stage performance might come to mind. There's certainly plenty of room in this genre for expressing sexuality in a sultry and seductive way, but in the 1600s burlesque began as amusing comedy skits and parodies designed to poke fun at popular plays, ballets and operas. Indeed, a certain element of comedy and entertainment endures today.
The word ‘burlesque’ comes from the Spanish and Italian word ‘burla’, meaning to trick, joke or mock. Originally, more men than women would act in these burlesque plays, and all participants would be fully dressed, powdered and primped for a theatrical performance that, while entertaining, could only be described as moderately risqué.
Fast forward to the late 1800s where women who had previously been covered by hoops, petticoats and layers of other clothing suddenly found a great release in appearing on stage in only tights and a corset.
Rumour has it that in 1896 when one of these sparsely dressed women was performing a tableaux vivant (where the model doesn’t move or speak) on top of a table, she suddenly spotted a flea on her costume and in a panicked frenzy suddenly stripped off all her clothes. The appreciative male audience enthusiastically and unanimously roared their approval of this unexpected addition to the show - and because of that unwelcome flea, the strip tease was born.
Today, burlesque dancing endures as an art form which empowers women, showcases a range of impressive body shapes and boasts stunning costumes along with cleverly choreographed stripteases. The following are ten women who have led - or are leading - the crowd in burlesque.
11 Bettsie Bon Bon
Bettsie Bon Bon is the epitome of a successful burlesque dancer: smart, sexy and driven. While studying law at university, Bettsie Bon Bon joined a dance class to escape the mundane world of academia and discovered a passion for the spotlight. She joined her first burlesque group soon after and has never looked back.
So why did someone well on her way to a successful career in law give it all up for feathers, fabric and the fabulous fantasy world of burlesque? “Why not?” answers the British bombshell. “I love the way it makes me, and my audience, feel. It's empowering, entertaining, risqué - and who doesn't want to feel like that at some point in their lives?"
10 Gypsy Rose Lee
Gypsy Rose Lee is probably the most well known burlesque dancer in history. Known for her famous striptease act, she shocked the socks off conservative 1930s' audiences that had never seen anything like it before.
Gypsy Rose Lee went on to act in several movies and later wrote a biography about her life which was turned into a successful Broadway musical. The stage beauty wasn’t so lucky in love, having been married and divorced three times. The legendary Gypsy Rose Lee lost a brief battle with lung cancer and died in 1970.
9 Dita Von Teese
Dita Von Teese, aka the Queen of Burlesque, turned a fascination of the culture and style of the 1940s into a fulltime career.
Like her mother, the Michigan-born beauty was a huge fan of the golden age of Hollywood films icons like Betty Grable. Although Von Teese has been performing since 1992, she hit the mainstream when she graced the cover of Playboy’s December 2002 issue.
Known for her elaborate dance shows where she uses large props such as a working carousel, oversized feather fans and a large martini glass that she bathes in, Von Teese describes her shows as, “putting the tease back in striptease.”
8 Calamity Chang
Dubbed ‘The Asian Sexsation’, Calamity Chang is best known for her role in the titillating Michael Fassbender movie Shame, as one member of an adventurous threesome.
Based in New York, Calamity Chang is not only a globally celebrated burlesque dancer, but is also a producer of the world’s only Asian Burlesque show.
This versatile performer’s style is an intoxicating blend of exotic and traditional, and her homage to the 1920s era in Shanghai is not to be missed.
7 Roxi D’Lite
Canada's Roxi D’Lite is the burlesque world’s bad girl. Known as a ‘strip teaser and virtual pleaser’, the reigning Burlesque Hall of Fame’s Queen of Burlesque also sports the crown of Miss Exotic World, 2014’s World Champion of Exotic Dance and 2014’s Showgirl Champion.
Roxi delights her audiences every night by putting a new twist on an old tease using elaborate costumes, stage props and even incorporating theatrical circus elements into each performance.
6 Zelia Rose
Current Miss Burlesque Australia Zelia Rose is a triple threat. This awarding winning burlesque entertainer is also a talented cabaret singer who holds various degrees in art, visual arts, and dance.
No stranger to the stage, Zelia Rose has performed in music videos, fashions shows and at various venues and festivals throughout the world.
Inspired by the great Josephine Baker, Zelia Rose’s style channels the golden era of 1930’s burlesque, and her memorable performances are described as ‘exotic, opulent and full of sass’.
5 Jo ‘Boobs’ Weldon
Jo Weldon wrote the book on the art of burlesque, quite literally. After a long and successful career in burlesque dancing, Jo Weldon founded the New York School of Burlesque, where she developed a curriculum and industry standards for the artful dance.
After compiling notes from school handouts and her own personal experience, she also wrote and published The Burlesque Handbook, the first comprehensive manual explaining how to create classical and neo-burlesque routines.
Weldon also founded Pink Light Burlesque, an organization designed to provide light hearted burlesque classes to breast cancer patients and survivors, free of charge.
4 Suicide Girls
The only thing better than seeing one hot burlesque dancer on stage is seeing a half a dozen hot burlesque dancers on stage. The Suicide Girls, an all-girl international touring troupe and online sensation, brings a modern spin to the burlesque world by infusing pop culture, indie soundtracks and tongue in cheek fun.
Labelled ‘Blackheart Burlesque’, the alternative models' most recent tour has sold out shows in Australia, Canada and the US and Vice News described the experience as “Comicon meets burlesque nerd orgy.”
3 Legs Malone
If you’ve ever wondered where Legs Malone got her name from, simply take a gander at the best stems in the business. Referred to as ‘The Girl with the Thirty-Four and a Half inch Inseam’, Legs Malone has travelled the world performing her own unique brand of live entertainment, but calls New York home.
The popular dancer started her own podcast in December 2013 called Lunch with Legs, where she interviews a host of different people, many in the burlesque world.
2 Betty Page
No self respecting list of burlesque dancers would ever be complete without including the Queen of the Pinups herself: Betty Page. The camera loved Page’s sculpted body, startling blue eyes and trademark curved bangs, and she started her career as a bondage model acting out domination and slave training scenarios for mail order customers. The curvy beauty went on to act in three burlesque films including the feature length Striporama, before retiring from the business in the late 1950’s when she became a born again Christian. Betty Page died in 2008 at the age of 85.
1 Courtney Cruz
Californian Courtney Cruz has been performing as a burlesque dancer since 2002. In addition to captivating audiences with sci-fi themed performances, she also produces and coordinates fashion and burlesque events in the California area.
Recently honoured with LA Weekly’s ‘Best Burlesque Show’, Courtney Cruz’s claim to fame was as the smoking hot storm trooper in a very memorable Star Wars themed burlesque show. Her routine was so well received that one admirer actually tattooed her storm trooper bikini clad body, complete with helmet, on their arm.